NFL Divisional Round game picks: Vikings > Saints in juicy bout

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The throw, more a heave from the 2003 co-MVP, hung in the biting-cold air like a short punt ... before the ball fell into the cocked, er, frozen hands of Drew Bennett ...

... it didn't stay there.

Under heavy pressure, Steve McNair valiantly put plenty of air under his fourth-and-12 attempt, enough to give his wide receiver a chance on that January night in 2004, enough to potentially set up a game-tying field goal by Gary Anderson. It was not to be. Bennett clamped his hands around the frigid football a millisecond too soon, causing it -- and the Titans' chances of advancing to the AFC Championship Game -- to squirt away.

Still, considering the wind chill was minus-10 at kickoff, every player in that Divisional Round bout showed unfathomable resolve in competing as hard they did for 60 minutes.

"It was so cold some of the fans who had tickets to the game ended up going to the parking lot to listen in their car with the heat on," Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, who had three sacks in the game, told me Wednesday. "Asante Samuel got frostbite."

Yes, New England's 17-14 triumph over Tennessee in that contest was one of the grittiest, most riveting postseason games of this millennium, even if it has been buried in an avalanche of memorable moments from the Belichick Patriots dynasty. We can only hope this Saturday night's Titans-Pats engagement comes close to matching the captivation of that Saturday evening 14 years ago.

As you can see below, though, my guess is this year's Divisional Round will be defined by the late game on Sunday. Saints at Vikings is the centerpiece this weekend. Your thoughts? Please send them along: @HarrisonNFL is the place.

Now, let's get to it!

Elliot Harrison went 2-2 on his predictions for Wild Card Weekend, giving him a record of 168-92 thus far this season. How will he fare in the Divisional Round? His picks are below:

Steelers
23
Pick
Jaguars
16
Sunday, Jan. 14 @ 1:05 PM ET
Tossing five interceptions is rather hard to live down, you would think ... Ben Roethlisberger threw that many in these two teams' previous meeting this season, back in Week 5. Then again, I heard Tony Romo say recently that after you throw three, who cares? It sure seemed that way for Roethlisberger, who simply kept chucking and ducking back in October, with two of his picks returned for six. The Steelers can ill-afford giving away 14 points again, especially against this defense. Jacksonville allows barely more than 14 points per game ( three last week, 16.8 in the regular season). Thus, expect this Divisional Round matchup to feature a whole lot of Le'Veon Bell. You can run on this Jacksonville front, although the numbers are skewed because nobody wanted to throw on them all year. While that fear-based play-calling might account for the healthy rushing-yardage total, it doesn't account for the robust 4.3 yards per carry allowed. Bell should be featured in the passing game, where he is slick both slipping out of the backfield on a route and when Todd Haley aligns him out wide. Which means Myles Jack might not enjoy his coverage assignments this week. Jack saved a touchdown in the wild-card game by holding LeSean McCoy on a perfectly run rub route, the definition of a smart penalty.

No matter which route Jags receivers ran last week, Blake Bortles couldn't put the ball on them. The anti-Brees threw ducks, flying saucers, a couple Donovan McNabb dirtballs and a few Blake Bortles specials* in the first half. (*A ball that's so wobbly and inaccurate you think he might have actually intended to pull the throw back, but alas, he didn't.) Can he go streetball again and rush for 90 yards? Will Pittsburgh spy him? No matter what, Bortles deserves credit for his effectiveness on the ground. He takes some hits, man, and fights for yardage. The Jags don't beat the Bills without him. Look for Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory and the whole RB crew to get plenty of work. With all that said, anticipate the outcome to be contingent on the play of A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey on Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Fun fact: This note's courtesy of my main man, NFL researcher @RealJackAndrade. Of the last six teams that lost a regular-season game by 20-plus then faced the same opponent in the postseason, exactly zero have exacted revenge. Wow.

Vikings
24
Pick
Saints
22
Sunday, Jan. 14 @ 4:40 PM ET
This is the game of the weekend. The Saints are coming off an impressive win over the Panthers, pulling off the challenging feat of beating a division opponent three times in one season. The Vikings posted their best regular season since the 15-1 1998 group. Like that team, this Minnesota group is lit. (Sorry, trying to cater to all my readers who are having to go back to Physics 16: Mechanics and Special Relativity after a long winter break with co-eds and Franzia.) Also like that Vikes squad from '98: a newbie at quarterback. Randall Cunningham turned in his first full season as the Vikings' starter in 1998 and almost secured both the NFC championship and league MVP (Terrell Davis won that year). Case Keenum might not do either, but don't laugh at the second notion. His play this year vaulted him to an honorable mention, at least. He's also thrown three times as many touchdowns as interceptions, without all of the dink-and-dunk-until-you-drop we saw from Sam Bradford last year. This isn't Ben Affleck replacing Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, this is Bale supplanting Val Kilmer.

The real matchup to watch will not be Keenum taking on the New Orleans defense, or even Adam Thielen vs. Marshon Lattimore (not sure how often Lattimore will see Thielen across from him Sunday). Rather, it's Brees against Mike Zimmer's defensive unit. The Saints' franchise quarterback set an NFL record for completion percentage this season at a whopping 72.0. Minnesota set the pace for all scoring defenses, giving up a scant 15.8 points per game. That means Keenum is used to going out there with the thought bubble We score 20 on O, we win. Can Brees generate five quality drives, enough to produce two touchdowns and three field goals? Not only will that be challenging against this Vikings pass rush (especially with the Saints missing parts on the offensive line), but Minnesota also boasts quality on the back two levels of the defense. Brees should dispatch Alvin Kamara outside and over the middle of the field. Problem is, OLB Anthony Barr and S Harrison Smith would be partially responsible for the slippery rookie -- and they are each All-Pro-level players. Xavier Rhodes should shadow Michael Thomas. Mark Ingram will be hard-charging into the league's second-ranked run defense.

Fun fact: The @RealJackAndrade found that, since Week 10, Keenum and Brees have been two of the top three quarterbacks in the league by passer rating, with Keenum posting a 107.2 mark and Brees a 104.1. Only Matt Stafford (105.0) can compare since that time. Nice work, Jack! (I am trying to get him to create a Bumble account, ladies.)

Saturday's games

Falcons
21
Pick
Eagles
14
Saturday, Jan. 13 @ 4:35 PM ET
So much is being made of Nick Foles' presence in this game that you'd think people want the Eagles to just go 10-on-11. Well, actually, that might not be such a bad idea -- in spirit, anyway. Philadelphia would be wise to employ its cadre of backs, running right at the Falcons' front. Bear in mind that what was once deemed a weakness for this Eagles team morphed into a strength, even before the midseason acquisition of Jay Ajayi. Consider also that Philly's defense essentially will have been on break since Christmas Day, given how little the 1s played against the Cowboys in Week 17. And when I say Philadelphia would be well-served running right at Atlanta's front, I mean straight forward -- not laterally, to the edges -- as the speed of Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal might be unrivaled in these playoffs. None of this is to say Nick Foles can't make a few chunk plays downfield off play-action, but the Eagles' prescription for a win is: run the football, make kicks, pressure Matt Ryan. If Fletcher Cox goes off, getting in Ryan's face, Foles could be the beneficiary of short fields off turnovers.

Another reason Philly should be aerial averse? The Falcons corners. Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant match up just fine with Philadelphia's talent outside. The whole secondary hits -- and finishes tackles. The front four will turn the Eagles' quarterback into Fole-iage right quick if Ajayi and Leggie Blount can't get rollin'. You're welcome for that last line.

Fun fact: Ryan owns a streak of five consecutive postseason games with a passer rating in the triple digits. He's currently tied with Troy Aikman (a better quarterback, admittedly) for second-longest such run of all time. He's three behind a better, better quarterback in Joe Montana. I surmise that the run stops here, but the winning doesn't for the ATL.

Patriots
34
Pick
Titans
17
Saturday, Jan. 13 @ 8:15 PM ET
Can Tennessee give New England a game in Foxborough? Will this be a Harlem Globetrotters vs. whateverthosedudesnameswerethatlosttothemeveryweek, like many Patriots playoff affairs in the Belichick/Brady/Kraft era? (Notice I gave them all equal due, so as not to add to any drama.) (Too soon.) In the recent vintage, there was Tim Tebow read-optioning his way into a football-optional offseason, Leggie Blount running for a buck-sixty-six and four tuds on the Colts and, of course, the shellacking of the Steelers in last season's AFC Championship Game. If Tennessee is to pull off a stunner, the offense must keep Tom Brady off the field. The simple solution there is to give Derrick Henry enough carries to blow by the NFL record for carries. By halftime. OK, maybe that isn't feasible, but 30 carries is. As is having Marcus Mariota playing fast. Don't let New England sub -- pick up the pace with the no-huddle. You can still run the ball out of that kind of offense.

Like I discussed in the intro to this piece, this matchup brings back memories of the 2003 Divisional Round game in the bitter, bitter cold. And that Titans team is similar to this edition: athletic quarterback (Steve McNair/Marcus Mariota); big, long-striding tailback (Eddie George/Derrick Henry); and even a clutch tight end (Frank Wycheck/Delanie Walker). The problem is that Brady is simply a better player than he was back then. He will riddle the Tennessee secondary if the pass rush can't get home. Dick LeBeau simply doesn't have the horses on defense that the Texans had at their disposal in last season's tighter-than-expected Divisional Round game in New England.

Fun fact ... or not (depending on your leaning): Patriots running backs recorded 957 receiving yards this season, second-most in the NFL. The Titans allowed 967 receiving yards to opposing RBs, most in the NFL. Hmm.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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